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My New Diet Is An App: Weight Loss Goes Digital

Apr 15, 2019
Originally published on April 16, 2019 11:26 am

As they have with so many other industries, apps are shaking up the weight loss business, including big-name companies like Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers. And it's basically because more consumers feel the way Jessica Holloway-Haytcher does.

A couple years ago, she tried diet shakes and supplements. She hated them. She also hired a former NFL player turned personal trainer — but his schedule never matched hers.

She spent $600 a month for programs that weren't sustainable. She says she couldn't keep up with the "astronomical" costs.

Now Holloway-Haytcher uses an app called Noom. (Noom is an NPR sponsor.) She has shed over 30 pounds so far, by changing her habits. She now prepares healthy meals in the morning, so she's not ravenous at night; she focuses on conversation to slow her eating.

The app also helps her track meals, exercise and keep in touch with an online coach. It's always with her, and works with her busy schedule as the owner of a staffing firm in Kennewick, Wash. Sometimes, it even feels as though the app knows what she is thinking.

"It's kind of funny how I'll open the app one day, and it'll be exactly what I'm struggling with is what they're talking about," Holloway-Haytcher says. Like when she stopped losing weight, and got discouraged. "They talked about how that can affect you and how to work through it and then how to work through the negative self-talk that you have," she says.

When it comes to weight loss, 80 percent of people try to do it on their own, says John LaRosa, president of Marketdata, which tracks the $4 billion commercial U.S. weight loss industry. (The overall market — including diet foods and soft drinks, health clubs, weight loss surgery and diet pharmaceuticals — totals about $72 billion.) He says apps like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit and Fooducate appeal to those consumers.

LaRosa says apps have a downside: Users often tire of them, just as they do gym memberships. But the apps are also cheaper than most commercial programs, and they appeal to the younger demographic that traditional chains have struggled to attract.

"The average age of a customer of Jenny Craig, or Nutrisystem or Weight Watchers is about 48, and it's probably going up," LaRosa says. "It's going to be a shrinking market if they just cater to the baby boomers."

That explains why Nutrisystem, which was acquired by Tivity Health last year, revamped its digital strategy. Tivity President Dawn Zier says that included advertising more on social media and redesigning its NuMi app.

"The younger generation is all about being on demand," she says. "[They will say] 'I want the food when I want it; I want to talk to a counselor when I actually have an issue, which may be 10 o'clock on Saturday night.' "

Weight Watchers also overhauled its brand last year, changing its name to WW.

"Three years ago, millennials told us that this was my grandmother's brand," says Debra Benovitz, a senior vice president for WW.

The 56-year-old company shifted gears. It still champions support groups at its retail locations, a concept that made it and Jenny Craig popular in the 1980s. Having physical stores is still WW's biggest difference from upstarts that are exclusively digital.

Benovitz says WW's own app serves to keep customers in touch between, or instead of, those in-person meetings.

"It used to be that we hesitated to even show the app in our commercials, and that has so shifted," she says. "I think the future is being a really strong science-based technology partner in the health and wellness space."

That trend may have started with the younger generation, but has spread beyond it. Favin Gebremariam, 34, of Boston uses WW's app, as does her mother. They chat daily about their weight and exchange photos with other members.

The interactions occur throughout the day, which helps keep Gebremariam on track, she says.

"You get feedback and you get congratulations, or you get support," all of which keep her motivated to stick with the program, she says. Gebremariam also still considers the in-person workshops essential.

But the app fills in the gaps. "We want to track our food and we want to track our activity and check in on our friends, and that's happening on the phone," Gebremariam says.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Our phones help us do so many things. And you can add one more thing to that list - losing weight. Health apps are gaining popularity, and that's forcing older weight loss companies to adapt, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Like many consumers these days, Jessica Holloway-Haytcher uses words like mindful and wellness when talking about weight loss.

JESSICA HOLLOWAY-HAYTCHER: In our household, diet is, like, a four-letter word. We don't use it. It's about a lifestyle change. It's about trying to figure out what is the healthy way for us to live.

NOGUCHI: Holloway-Haytcher owns a staffing firm in Kennewick, Wash. Two years ago, she tried diet shakes and supplements. She hated them.

HOLLOWAY-HAYTCHER: Even though they say they have a lot of flavor, all I taste is salt.

NOGUCHI: She also hired a personal trainer, but his schedule never matched hers. She spent $600 a month and wasn't able to keep the weight off.

Now Holloway-Haytcher uses an app called Noom. She says it's taught her new habits. She's shed over 30 pounds by preparing healthy meals in advance or focusing on conversation to slow her eating. The app - Noom is an NPR sponsor - helps her track meals, exercise and keep in touch with an online coach.

She says sometimes it even feels like the app knows what she's thinking.

HOLLOWAY-HAYTCHER: It's kind of funny how, like, I'll open the app one day, and it'll be exactly what I'm struggling with is what they're talking about. Like, I hit a plateau, so they talked about how that can affect you and how to work through it and then how to work through the negative self-talk that you have.

NOGUCHI: John LaRosa is president of Marketdata, which tracks the $4 billion U.S. weight loss industry. He says apps like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit and Fooducate appeal to do-it-yourselfers who make up 80 percent of people trying to lose weight. He says the downside of apps is that users often tire of them just as they do gym memberships. But they're also cheaper than most programs. And LaRosa says they appeal to the younger demographic that traditional chains have struggled to attract.

JOHN LAROSA: The average age of a customer of Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem or Weight Watchers is about 48, and it's probably going up. It's going to be a shrinking market if they just cater to the baby boomers.

NOGUCHI: Nutrisystem, which was acquired by Tivity Health last year, revamped its digital strategy. Tivity President Dawn Zier says this is why.

DAWN ZIER: The younger generation is all about being on demand. I want the food when I want it. I want to talk to a counselor when I actually have an issue, which may be 10 o'clock on Saturday night.

NOGUCHI: Weight Watchers also overhauled its brand. Debra Benovitz is senior vice president for the company, which last year changed his name to WW.

DEBRA BENOVITZ: Three years ago, millennials told us that this was my grandmother's brand.

NOGUCHI: The 56-year-old company shifted gears. It still champions support groups at its retail locations. Those physical stores made it and Jenny Craig popular in the 1980s and are its biggest difference from the digital upstarts.

Benovitz says WW's own app helps to stay in touch between, or instead of, those in-person meetings.

BENOVITZ: It used to be that we hesitated to even show the app in our commercials, and that has so shift. I think the future is being a really strong science-based technology partner in the health and wellness space.

NOGUCHI: And that has broad appeal. Thirty-four-year-old Favin Gebremariam uses WW's app along with her mom. They chat daily about weight and exchange photos with other members.

FAVIN GEBREMARIAM: And the interactions - they happen all day. You get feedback, and you get congratulations or you get support. We want to track our food, and we want to, you know, track out activity and check in on our friends. And that's happening on the phone. And so I think that that's been a crucial element to my success, for sure.

NOGUCHI: Success Gebremariam measures in lower weight and higher self-esteem.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.